Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
When life gets you down there is always Tom Hanks, this century's answer to Jimmy Stewart, a self deprecating Everyman with a slanted smile who has the knack for making us feel better, no matter the straits. Hanks, in character, and in interviews, is so unflinchingly good natured that he is hard to criticize. For good reason. As a blank slate, Hanks shows us the universality in everyday actions. And he absorbs each role completely.
Such is the case in Hanks' second directorial outing, "Larry Crowne". From the first Pop-art Mondrian credits on screen, we know we are in seasoned visual hands and we also know we are going to be placed in Hanks' world. There is nothing truly dark here. Hanks plays Larry Crowne, a dedicated worker in a box store, on his way to supervisor we assume, or employee of the month, at the very least. Crowne gets called in to the lounge. To his shock and horror and through no fault of his own, the company lets him go. Crowne is denied upward mobility because he doesnt have a college degree. Crowne is crushed and bereft. The simplicity in which Hanks portrays the emotion of dashed hope is subtle in simplicity. All in just one pale look: a crooked smile, the arch of an eye, the drop of a shoulder, anything in holding back a cry. It is a signature moment.
Crowne decides to get his degree and we are carried along with him in a seamless and entertaining fashion as he struggles to get to class, looking adorable as a gentle unassuming middle aged man trying to better himself against traffic, jobs and impersonal bank employees. Hanks has an artful easy touch as a director as delicate as rice paper. His equilibrium with the camera is never heavy handed and always puts us in his story. We never leave Larry Crowne and never want to--- his struggle is so much our own.
Then as if on cue, enter Julia Roberts as the instructor, Mrs. Taino. She is non-plussed and beaten down. If you have ever wanted to see Julia Roberts lose her sunny disposition, this would be the film. She is an authentic teacher but not a bad one, of course not. Everyone, from the mediocre students who say nonsensical things,to the head-honcho of the "scooter-gang", Dell Gordo, is under a lens of charm. There is no upsetting anarchistic Dennis Hopper here. And that is not a bad thing. Or is it? There is one ridiculous moment where the scooter gang surrounds Crowne and they snap their fingers in unison and stare each other down. Really? The effect is almost cringe-making. I can forgive it. But the scene is almost on par with Pierce Brosnan's singing ability.
George Takei of "Star Trek" makes a funny appearance as an economics professor, playing on his spacey persona. Takei has one good line as he takes all the smartphones in one big pile. But when he laughs like an arch-villain on "The Simpsons" it just doesn't make sense.
Roberts plays her part well. She is a good-hearted teacher, shuffling and plodding along. Her mix of ease and angst is easy on the senses. We care without caring too much. Her character of glee under gloom is well matched with Hanks' Pinnochio panache.
Only Brian Cranston from "Breaking Bad" seems annoying and interminable on-screen. The single character written without a puff of charm. Just one big whine: Mr. Taino. I wish Hanks had revised him or whited him out.
Yes, we have seen many "Larry Crowne" stories on film before. It is a formula. Call it Paxil in pictures if you like, but it moves so quickly. And with just one look at Hanks' trademark slanted smile, you'll be watching too.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org